Karen Bradley’s job just got harder, and other lessons from the government’s new ministers

Theresa May has shuffled the deckchairs again.

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For Theresa May, the deckchair shuffling never stops: 48 members of the government have resigned, the vast majority of them over Brexit, in the prime minister’s 35 months in office. 

As the cohort of irreconcilables on the backbenches has grown, the pool of potential conscripts has shrunk dramatically – to the extent that many junior roles have been left unfilled. 

Downing Street has moved to fill a handful of those unpaid jobs this afternoon. Those promoted are by no measure household names, and nor are their new gigs public facing. But they do tell us a good deal about where the government is going, and the state of the relationship between the executive and the Tory backbenches.

Karen Bradley’s job just got even harder

As Northern Ireland Secretary presides over perhaps the stickiest Cabinet wicket. The consensus – at Westminster in general, within the Conservative Party in particular and in Northern Irish society at large – Is that she is doing a bad job of rising to the challenge.

Those who make this sort of criticism usually make a point of excepting Matt Warman, who has been promoted from his role as Bradley’s longtime parliamentary private secretary to the Whips’ Office, from their complaints. 

The Boston and Skegness MP is a longtime May loyalist, unlike many other of the MPs given the nod for promotion ahead of him, and is well regarded by those who work and deal with Bradley – including, notably, the DUP’s Westminster team. 

Colleagues describe their working relationship as closer than that of other ministers and their PPSs. The pairings are decided by the whips, and in some cases aren’t perfect matches. Warman, however, served as Bradley’s PPS during her time as Culture Secretary and followed her to the Northern Ireland Office. “Karen trusts Matt more than any other colleague,” an NIO source once told me. “It’s like having another minister.”

Without the services of her closest lieutenant, Bradley’s job of building goodwill and sustaining severely tested relationships within her own party, with the Conservatives’ sometime confidence and supply partners, and at Stormont, will be much harder. With tough and divisive choices on Brexit, restoring power-sharing and the prosecution of Troubles veterans looming large, the absence will be felt. 

Scottish Tories are on the rise – and the 2017 intake are behaving themselves again

Half of the 12 Conservative MPs first elected in 2017 now have government jobs – most notably Andrew Bowie, Theresa May’s PPS. 

But just as significant for some Tory MPs is the fact that Alister Jack, the MP for Dumfries and Galloway, has won his second ministerial promotion in as many months. 

Formerly a PPS to Natalie Evans, the leader of the House of Lords, Jack became a junior whip in February and has won a further promotion within the Whips’ Office today. 

His upwards trajectory reflects the hold the government has on the bulk of Scottish Conservative MPs. But there is a deeper significance too. Jack, along with fellow payroller Colin Clark – a PPS at the Department for Work and Pensions – both signed an ERG letter demanding “full regulatory autonomy” for the UK after Brexit. 

Their ensconcement in the government payroll reflects that for the most part, the 2017 intake is now reconciled to the withdrawal agreement – and that, far from acting as the autonomous bloc some commentators predicted, Scotland’s Tory MPs are behaving in much the same way as their English and Welsh colleagues. 

There are no MPs left to fill big jobs

More significant than either Warman or Jack’s promotion is the one that did not occur. Some 28 days have passed since the resignation of Alistair Burt as Middle East Minister – a role divided between the Foreign Office and Dfid – yet still he has not been replaced. 

While there are just about enough junior members of the payroll to promote to minor ministerial roles, a Conservative Party whose backbenches are populated by people who either will not or cannot serve May can’t fill bigger jobs such as Burt’s. The duration the post has been left vacant suggests that situation won’t change until the prime minister does.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.